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A Story of Hope: Meet Donna

July 01, 2019

About a year ago, I unexpectedly had to go on short term disability when my mental health began to severely impact my day-to-day living.

In my role as a prominent and well-respected Occupational Therapist, I helped others who had procured an injury or disability gain independence in their daily activities. On the outside, I was successful - I was married, I traveled, and I had many friends. People knew me as the adventurous and free-spirited one, always striving to achieve my lifelong goal of working in an impoverished environment as a therapist (preferably in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America).  In my mind, I, Donna Stegall, would never stop living, laughing, traveling, seeking and learning.

But all that changed when I woke up one day and couldn’t figure out how to simply put one foot in front of the other because of the darkness that had crept into my mind. 

My challenges started three and a half years ago with insomnia combined with the novelty of my first job in an unethical setting.  With these changes came a scary onset of constant panic attacks that landed me, usually “Miss Independent”, back at home with my parents, desperately and quietly wishing I could just go to the hospital and “get fixed.”

Oh what I would have given for just one night of rest during that time. 

Fast forward to 2018 when the sickness started to completely consume me. I was back in Charlotte, married and settled, with a new job and house, all the while desperately suffering inside my own labyrinth of darkness. I began to believe that this was how everyone experienced life.

Oh, how the tables had turned! I was the one who was supposed to be helping others function to their optimal level of health, and yet here I was, finding it increasingly harder to leave my house, get out of bed, cook dinner, or clean.

Then, my work life began to suffer.  I would sit and stare at the computer, unable to find motivation or get my mind to concentrate. I felt like I was slowly slipping away. The world became a scary place, and it felt like life was set on making sure I was curled up in a corner unable to fight back. I became terrified of any and every thought that entered my mind. I was losing control, and the very person who was once invigorated with light and energy had now started to fear her very own self. 

It was my husband who finally helped me realize that I was very sick. I had been living in complete denial, blaming my tears on anything possible that could be the source of my misery: I would say I wasn’t depressed or anxious, I was just sleep deprived; my medication wasn’t working; work was stressful, etc.  My ultimate breaking point came in the form of “episodes” that were new, scary, and real.  Sadly, these episodes are what cost me my wonderful second job.

The first episode happened one day while I was singing at church.  Ironically, my spiritual high landed me at my ultimate low. The next eight hours consisted of the most terrifying moments of my life. My parents and husband sat by helpless, scared and broken as I would thrash, scream and have to be held down for my own safety.  I hit anyone in my path, crying out for someone to help me, save me, do anything to make it stop. Something felt like it was attacking me, and the sensation would not stop. 

You see, when something like this happens, you simply fall into a parallel universe, unable to step back into the safety of what was once your reality. I never knew when another episode would happen, so I began to isolate and lock myself in the house even more than before.  I ended up in the hospital on multiple occasions during this time. 

I started to feel abandoned by God, and this trial became the ultimate testing of my faith. My thoughts were too jumbled to hear him and my heart was too dark to feel his presence.  Did he see my tears? Did he hear the desperation in my voice as I prayed, knees bent, head down, hands toward the sky?

Although it seemed that God stayed silent, his presence not as real as it had always been, I knew he was there. Moments came when he gave me a glimpse of his peace and told me he loved me. My faith survived solely on the basis of trusting Him and knowing he was still guarding me in the battle. 

Finally, after having been previously misdiagnosed with bipolar 2 disorderI started seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with clinical depression, panic disorder, and eventually borderline personality disorder (BPD) .

Not knowing much about BPD, I began researching it and had the “ah-ha” moment of feeling like the glove finally fit.  Even though I began to understand what had been going on with me for so long, things didn’t get better right away. While my psychiatrist and the introduction of medication certainly helped, I was still playing the waiting game for when my next episode would occur. But then I ended up entering treatment at HopeWay, which is ultimately what saved my life. 

The first week at HopeWay was an adjustment period. Only days before, I had been so scared to leave my house and now I was in a routine from 9:00 - 4:00 EVERY SINGLE DAY. But to my complete and utter surprise, I found that not only could I do this, I actually enjoyed it!  I wanted to get up in the morning and go to this “not so scary place”.

As treatment progressed, my depression continued to have a huge grip on me.  But we practiced mindfulness and engaged in multiple activities throughout the day that proved incredibly helpful.  During these times, my depression would disappear.  I never realized how much of a relief it would be to actually feel peace during exercises like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and art therapy, among others. I also made a point to build community by talking with other clients who were in a similar spot on their mental health journey so that I could learn as much as possible. 

By this point, I was DETERMINED to get better. 

HopeWay ended up being a Godsend, an answer to prayer. Who knew that routine was exactly what I needed? Who knew that being surrounded by caring staff and fellow clients who understood me better than most, would give me a sense of belonging and understanding?  There was no abyss dividing us – we were all together in this parallel universe fighting to survive each day.

I finally felt like I had found somewhere outside of my own home, that home. 

INSIGHT is the key word of this story.  My therapist, Mrs. Sheri, slowly but surely helped me find a way out of my own darkness.  She took each struggle, each ugly and dark part of myself that I was afraid to expose, and taught me how to combat them and face them head-on. She helped identify my strengths and gave me the insight and problem solving skills I needed to overcome my own messiness.

That’s what’s so great about HopeWay - it allowed me to see my power through my own eyes. It equipped me with tools and techniques that eventually helped reduce the onset and length of my terrifying "episodes".  I slowly but surely learned how to come out of them at a quicker rate. 

The final revelation in my story came while my time at HopeWay was winding down. In the beginning, my sickness was controlling me.  But I finished treatment knowing I was the one with all the power.  I finally realized that even though my journey will always be a fight, I can be the one standing tall ready to fight and face the world, head held high, prepared for battle, instead of the scared little girl that had been hiding anxiously in the corner terrified of the world and of herself.

So much of this strength came from the help of the wonderful staff at HopeWay, including my therapist, Mrs. Sheri. An empowering moment that stands out to me is when I realized that the strength has always been inside of me.

God finally showed me the help I needed and his timing is perfect. I have to first and foremost give him the glory, and then say thank you to my family for sticking by me when I was not a very pretty or easy person to be around. 

Lastly, many thanks to HopeWay for giving me, well, hope again.  Thanks to you, I have my life back.


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Editor’s note: This blog post is presented for informational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or treat any illness. If you have any health concern, see a licensed healthcare professional in person.